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AMA Drops Pain as Vital Sign


The nation’s largest medical society is recommending that pain be removed as a “fifth vital sign” in professional medical standards – a move critics say will make it even more difficult for pain sufferers to have their pain properly diagnosed and treated.

Delegates at the annual meeting of the American Medical Association in Chicago also passed several other resolutions aimed at reducing opioid prescribing and increasing access to addiction treatment. The AMA represents over 200,000 physicians in the U.S. and is very influential in setting public health policy.

The AMA’s new president said physicians played a key role in starting the so-called opioid epidemic by overprescribing pain medication, and now must do their part to end it.

“We have taken ownership of that, and physicians have taken ownership of being part of the solution,” AMA president Andrew Gurman, MD, told Modern Healthcare.The AMA’s main “solution” to the opioid problem is to stop asking patients about their pain.

Pain was first recognized as the fifth vital sign in the 1990's, giving pain equal status with blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate and temperature as vital signs. The policy encourages healthcare providers to ask patients about their pain.

But critics say pain is not a vital sign, but more of a symptom, and cannot be measured like a patient's temperature or blood pressure. They also claim The Joint Commission, a non-profit that accredits hospitals and other U.S. healthcare organizations, sets pain management standards too high, which contributes to opioid overprescribing.

"Just as we now know (the) earth is not flat, we know that pain is not a vital sign. Let's remove that from the lexicon," James Milam, MD, an AMA delegate said in MedPage Today. "Whatever it's going to take to no longer include pain as a vital sign ... Let's just get rid of the whole concept and try to move on."

“I am astounded that physicians don't believe we should assess pain on a regular and ongoing basis. That is exactly what removing pain as a vital sign means,” said Lynn Webster, MD, past president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine and vice president of scientific affairs at PRA Health Sciences.

Webster says dropping pain as a vital sign would setback pain care three decades.

“The problem is that too many physicians and policymakers equate assessing pain with giving opioids,” he said in an email to Pain News Network. “It appears that advocates for removing pain as a 5th vital sign are suggesting that if we just ignore pain then we won't have to deal with pain and opioid abuse will disappear. That is not only fantastical thinking, it is harmful to millions of people in pain.”

"This is a very unfortunate decision, one that creates the very real possibility that we will see a decrement in the quality of pain care delivered in various institutions," warned Bob Twillman, PhD, Executive Director of the Academy of Integrative Pain Management.

"The Joint Commission standards say you need to assess pain in every patient; record the results of that assessment; provide some kind of treatment; re-assess to see if the treatment was effective; and teach staff how to manage pain. They do not say we should ask patients how much pain they have on a 0-10 scale and give them opioids until the pain level is 4 or less. Not asking about pain does not make pain go away, and it does not relieve healthcare providers of their moral and ethical obligation to treat that pain effectively."

AMA Adopts PROP Policies

AMA delegates also passed a resolution urging The Joint Commission to stop requiring hospitals to ask patients about the quality of their pain care. Medicare has a funding formula that requires hospitals to prove they provide good care through patient satisfaction surveys. The formula rewards hospitals that are rated highly by patients, while penalizing those that are not.

"Judging health care facilities on an overly subjective measure – that is, how well it is perceived that they treat pain -- is an overly simplistic approach to measuring clinical effectiveness," said AMA Board chair Patrice Harris, MD, in a statement.

Passing the two resolutions means the AMA has essentially adopted the same policies as Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP), which is also lobbying the Joint Commission to weaken its pain management standards. PROP is funded by Phoenix House, which runs a chain of addiction treatment centers.

“At a time when millions of individuals in pain are under siege, the AMA has made it clear they are no friend to people in pain as they are opposed to being accountable for the pain care they provide, “ said David Becker, a patient advocate and social worker. “The AMA has become regressive, vision less, and hard-hearted toward the suffering that millions of people in pain endure on a daily basis. It is clear that the AMA is in need of moral reform.”

A recent survey of over 1,200 patients by Pain News Network and the International Pain Foundation found that many were dissatisfied with their pain treatment in hospitals. Over half rated the quality of their pain care as either poor or very poor, and over 80% said hospital staff are not adequately trained in pain management.The AMA House of Delegates also passed a resolution calling for greater access to naloxone, which reverses the effects of an opioid overdose, and adopted a policy urging health insurers to increase coverage of non-opioid and non-pharmacological pain treatments.

“Insurers must cover non-opioid and non-pharmacologic therapies that have proved effective. Insurers must take a broader view to give patients and physicians more choices," said Harris. “These policies will save lives. That's the bottom line.”

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